Humanizing Gun Nuts

An anthropologist shoots down stereotypes about gun enthusiasts.


Shooters: Myths and Realities of America's Gun Cultures, by Abigail A. Kohn, New York: Oxford University Press, 224 pages, $29.95

If there's a gun in a scene, an old writer's adage says, it had better go off. As that bit of advice suggests, there are few symbols more powerful than guns. They can represent liberation from oppression or serve as a weighty physical reminder of a lurking existential threat. No matter the association, the powerful emotional responses that guns elicit are largely responsible for the stagnant and vitriolic nature of the current gun control debate.

In Shooters, anthropologist Abigail Kohn argues that both sides of the debate have become so alienated from one another that they effectively form subcultures, and she studies them accordingly. Kohn calls Shooters an ethnography, an anthropological study conducted from within a culture to gain the "natives' point of view." Rather than studying gun enthusiasts though literature and statistics, or from behind a duck blind to ensure "objectivity," Kohn spent time with enthusiasts, interviewing them, taking classes with them, and shooting with them.

Her research methods appear to be scrupulous. She confined her survey to a particular area (the San Francisco Bay area) rather than glossing the gun culture as a whole. She published her standard questionnaire as an appendix to the book, and the citations she offers to support her claims seem to come from both sides of the gun control debate. The result is a fascinating look into the world(s) of gun enthusiasm that puts real, human faces on a gun debate dominated by antiseptic statistics and abstract principles. After reading Shooters, you'll wonder why no one has done such a study before.

The omission may stem from the typical attitude toward guns among academics, which Kohn addresses in her preface. From "public health" articles proposing gun control as a cure for the "epidemic" of gun violence to highly regarded sociologists who argue that gun research should be informed by "moral principles" rather than hard facts, she confesses her surprise at the ill-informed and often tendentious research conducted by academics. Kohn's own research for Shooters, some of which appeared in this magazine ("Their Aim Is True," May 2001), elicited predictable responses. One colleague said she was performing a "social service by researching 'such disgusting people.'" Another said that unless Kohn acknowledged the "inherent pathology" of gun enthusiasm, she was disrespecting victims of gun violence.

The characters that emerge from Kohn's interviews and observations are far more complex and interesting than the "gun nut" stereotypes that such comments suggest. The shooters in Shooters are diverse, including doctors, lawyers, artists, and men and women of various ages and races. Even their political persuasions are not as predictable as you might expect. While most of the people in Kohn's book describe themselves as conservative, a few are politically liberal and say they regularly vote Democrat.

Kohn focuses particular attention on the women shooters, trying to determine what makes them want to be a part of the "boys' club" of gun enthusiasm. The women that Kohn takes shooting classes with (and from) say owning firearms makes them feel less vulnerable, less like potential victims, and more like people in control of their own destinies. While some feminist scholars argue that female gun enthusiasts just reinforce violent and aggressive patriarchal tendencies, these shooters argue that by being armed they discourage male violence without the need for aggression.

It is here that Kohn's work takes its most interesting turn. The women and minorities in Kohn's book are acutely aware of the link between gun ownership and citizenship in the United States. Several of her subjects point to historical periods when certain segments of the population–blacks in the post?Civil War South, for example–were disarmed and enjoyed fewer rights and liberties than whites who had guns. That guns can and have been used by the oppressed to ward off their oppressors suggests that they can be a tool
for equality as well as freedom.

Even today, gun control has a disproportionate impact on poor people and minorities. Laws that target inexpensive guns (supposedly used more often in crimes) unfairly disarm people without the means to afford more costly firearms. Poor people are also disproportionately the victims of gun violence, meaning they have a greater stake in the right to self-defense.

The alternative that some anti-gun activists have suggested is reliance on the police, rather than guns, for protection. Shooters and gun scholars alike note that this solution is promoted by white middle-class gun critics for whom violence is not a daily reality and for whom the police are polite and responsive rather than menacing. They also note that in times of crisis, the minutes a police officer may take to respond could mean the difference between life and death. Shooters prefer the independence and reliability of self-defense.

These doctrines of self-reliance, toughness, and independence underlie a subculture that Kohn investigates thoroughly in Shooters: cowboy action shooting. More than an antique gun club, cowboy action shooting is a sport devoted to preserving the styles and ideals as well as the weapons of the Old West. Participants dress up in boots and hats and run through elaborate courses using period weapons.

Some of the most colorful characters in Kohn's book populate her chapter on cowboy action shooting. Shooters with names like "Wild Bill Hiccup" run through target courses with cigars clenched in their teeth, playing out Old West fantasies. Kohn's analysis occasionally drifts toward questionable psychosocial generalizations, such as her claim that cowboy action shooting is an attempt to reclaim a "white, middle-class identity" through Wild West re-enactments, despite participation by minorities and people of various economic classes. But by and large her account of this sport is delightfully thorough, especially to readers who had no idea it existed.

The chief weakness in this otherwise excellent book is Kohn's ambitious linking of ideas. Describing a shooter who thinks the world of gun enthusiasm is not demarcated by color, class, or gender, she writes, "This belief in the inherent diversity of gun enthusiasm as it's practiced is interesting for several reasons." Here and elsewhere, she uses the word inherent to link one belief held by a shooter to a wider, more abstract idea about shooting
in general. The problem is that in the world of ideas (and certainly in the world of anthropology) there is no such thing as inherent connections.

People in different cultures will form entirely different concepts around the same object. Even two people in the same culture will make different connections between sets of ideas. At least once in Shooters, one of Kohn's subjects makes the point that while shooters all share at least aspects of the hobby, they come to it from different backgrounds and for different reasons. Kohn's emphasis on "inherent" beliefs seems out of place in a book that tries to map the diversity of ideas within the gun culture.

Although Shooters is supposed to be an ethnographic study of a particular subculture, near the end Kohn leaps to conclusions about the broader gun control debate. She argues that both sides of the debate must be willing to give up some fundamental assumptions and tactics in order to make gun legislation work for everyone.

She emphasizes, for example, that guns have been an integral part of American culture at least since the nation's founding and that no amount of gun control will ever bring about the fundamental change its proponents imagine. On the other side, she argues that gun enthusiasts must give up the belief that gun control has no effect on crime, citing laws that prohibit felons from owning firearms as an example of effective gun control. (She fails to mention that those same felons can still get guns illegally.)

Although Kohn's conclusions are thought-provoking and display a wealth of research about the subject, they depart substantially from her avowed purpose. They frame a discussion more suited to a general debate about the merits of gun control than to a targeted study of gun enthusiasm.

Those weaknesses aside, Kohn paints a fascinating portrait of gun enthusiasts. Studying people who are often maligned as racist, jingoistic troglodytes, she portrays a lively and diverse group brought together by common interests in history, mechanics, and liberty. Her colleagues in academia should take her insights to heart, replacing their blind disgust with a more dispassionate understanding of citizens who see a gun as a tool, not a menace.?